Co.Design

Back To The Future: Why Retro-Innovation Is The Next Big Thing

How do you make the customer experience full of longing? Create exclusivity and make your product feel ephemeral.

Against an accelerating backdrop of datafication, a “retro-innovation” trend is emerging. New products and services are designed to connect us with the past in ways that are both nostalgic and interactive.

Retro-innovations roughly fall into three categories:

  1. Innovations that authentically mimic a product or experience of the past to transport the user back into a gone era.
  2. Innovations that use a nostalgic format to meet a new need.
  3. Innovations that use a new format to meet an old need.

The Italian paper notebook maker Moleskine, whose recent IPO was valued at more than $600 million, is a stunning anachronism in a business environment that glorifies tech startups and digital business models. Cleverly marketed as a tangible (analogue) reservoir of the artful and playful, the company describes its notebooks as “analogue clouds.” Last year, in an effort to replicate their sensibility online, they formed a partnership with digital note-taking and archiving software Evernote.

Crowdsourcing performances of songs, then throwing one live concert

Beck’s album, Song Reader, is a retro-innovation that used a traditional format (sheets of music) for a contemporary need (co-creation).

In December 2012, Beck masterfully combined the physical and digital experience by releasing his album exclusively as “sheets of music”--as a physical product, beautifully packaged--without ever performing and recording any of the new songs. Instead, Beck crowdsourced the performance of his new songs; he invited his fans to record and share his songs online. The brilliant part: Beck’s own interpretations of his songs would remain exclusive to concertgoers (which increased the value of his live performances), and the lack of a digital product that could be shared online (legally or illegally) created a new and obscure market for cover versions. Yet the original never existed. It made the release participatory and let fans and musicians all over the world co-create Beck’s “album.”

It fits, then, that Beck will perform “Song Reader” as a one-night-only show in San Francisco on May 24, as an “issue” of Pop-Up Magazine, the “world’s first live magazine.” The issue “exists” as a live performance and nothing will be filmed or recorded. This kind of ‘temporal exclusivity’ pushes the nostalgia factor because it’s all about remembering. These days, we have digital archives to serve that purpose. But Beck’s one performance exists to be remembered even as his fans make their own albums of his work.

Searching for old-fashioned experiences that happen only once

Nostalgia is also the hallmark of the Millennial Trains Project, an upcoming event that invites millennial thinkers and doers to spend 10 days together on a train traveling across the U.S. from coast to coast and to stop at 10 cities on the way. The goal is to learn about regional challenges and advance their respective projects in an eclectic, interdisciplinary environment. Founder Patrick Dowd, who quit a job at JP Morgan to launch the initiative, says that the experience will be meaningful because “it is ephemeral: it only happens once, and will never happen like that again.” Things that don’t last, last longer.

Bringing some of the “aura” back to experiences that have become readily accessible through digital reproduction is a theme that all retro-innovations have in common. The Secret Cinema series in the U.K. is a gathering that, compellingly, adds an element of mystery that seems to be lacking from our radically transparent social media world. People come together for “mystery screenings” of seminal movies, from Casablanca to Alien to Blade Runner, in undisclosed locations. It tries to make the traditional movie experience social, immersive, and interactive. Participants are given cues, such as dress code instructions, before the event. On-site, a live performance tries to extend the movie into real life. (For Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, a trapeze act overlapped with the scene in the film.)

In search of lost time

Then there is the much buzzed-about Outbox, a startup that aims to revolutionize postal mail. The service converts the contents of subscribers’ physical mailboxes into digital files and sends them to their digital devices (iPad, iPhone), combining digital efficiency (filtering out junk mail; having all mail readily available and searchable at your fingertips) with the nostalgic delight of receiving physical mail. Again, a traditional experience is reframed through the means of the connected world. Similarly, the website The Rumpus charges $5 monthly for people who want to receive old-fashioned letters in the mail from their favorite authors. They call it a print subscription.

Another Internet phenomenon is a retro-innovation: Snapchat, the app that enables the exchange of self-destructing images. It reminds us of a pre-digital age when forgetting was still possible. Images that disappear after a few moments for good are a nostalgic feature in a time when everything we say and do is remembered permanently online.

As much as forgetting is becoming a luxury, we like to remember the analog. The Recalling 1993 project in New York City turns every pay phone in the city into a “time machine” online, allowing citizens to “recall” what had happened on that block twenty years earlier. Similarly, the Historypin app asks users to “pin” historical photos, videos, and audio content to Google maps to create an historical archive that others can sort through.

Less ironic but broader trends that encapsulate a nostalgic sentiment are the do-it-yourself (DIY) maker movement, the renaissance of hardware (a key trend at this year’s South by Southwest conference), and the rise of micro-entrepreneurs and their contribution to the DIY economy. It’s all driven by the desire for a hands-on experience of work that overcomes the alienation between maker and product.

Retro-innovations express a desire to reconnect with something essential that appears to be missing from our modern lives--an appreciation of opacity, an authenticity that looks and feels real, a more romantic relationship with business that transcends a merely transactional mechanism. Which traditional human experience can you update and bring to life with technologies of the digital age? How can you make your customer experience full of longing? These are questions that retro-innovators are primed to answer.

[IMAGE: Don Draper, Allegra via Flickr]

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9 Comments

  • Bryan Seow

    Love your tiny quote, Tim.
    "Things that don't last, last longer."

    Is that yours?

  • Ram

    My "late" Marketing 101 Prof once said, the world today is looking at living life at such a fast pace that it is loosing relevance for rituals. Rituals were those threads that made us feel connected to the world around us, and we become more and more digital natives, the world of rituals is becoming narrower. In such a scenario, I can see how the Retro-ing of concepts will make us feel closer to our history and help us feel connected. Take this along with helping relieve rituals and we see a who new world out there, which takes the technological advances and brings us closer to what we inherently wish to be ... Thanks for writing this piece

  • Tommy

    What's Old is New Again... Cliche' but true, and incredibly relevant to design.

  • MarkGieljoumie

    Very inspiring and awesome article. An absolute pleasure to read. Also great insight and comments from Blazelz and Cambullrun. This is why I make the time read Co.design. daily

  • cassette_walkman

    Your observation highlights the conflict and oxymoron within the artcle. On the one hand the ephemeral and 'once only' experience is described as the nostalgic and retro experience, but print is the opposite, print is permanent not ephemeral. So both ephemeral and permanent are retro? Just because something happened in the past can we say it's nostalgic?

    And I say Beck's release is not a nod to retro-innovation, but is a melding of existing musical genres. It may surprise readers but some music is still written on sheet music and released that way, and performed by orchestras, quartets, singers etc. worldwide. That he's brought that into a pop/rock format is not 'nostalgic' but it is somewhat innovative to realise the instantaneous effect that the digital crowd sourcing of performances will have.

  • Cambullrun

    One big reason for the Retro-Innov. is the economy. Generally 'bad' times look to the past for support. Again, generally, 'good' times look ahead to the future. That's why you see a lot of future 'features' during the boom of the 1920's.